Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Even though Hero is ultimately vindicated, her public shaming at the wedding ceremony is too terrible to be ignored. In a sense, this kind of humiliation incurs more damage to her honor and her family name than would an act of unchaste behavior—an transgression she never commits. The language that both Claudio and Leonato use to shame Hero is extremely strong. To Claudio she is a “rotten orange” (IV.i.30), and to Leonato a rotting carcass that cannot be preserved: “the wide sea / Hath . . . / . . . salt too little which may season give / To her foul tainted flesh!” (IV.i.139–142).
Shame is also what Don John hopes will cause Claudio to lose his place as Don Pedro’s favorite: once Claudio is discovered to be engaged to a loose woman, Don John believes that Don Pedro will reject Claudio as he rejected Don John long ago. Shame is a form of social punishment closely connected to loss of honor. A product of an illegitimate sexual coupling himself, Don John has grown up constantly reminded of his own social shame, and he will do anything to right the balance. Ironically, in the end Don John is shamed and threatened with torture to punish him for deceiving the company. Clearly, he will never gain a good place in courtly society.
In Shakespeare’s time, the “Nothing” of the title would have been pronounced “Noting.” Thus, the play’s title could read: “Much Ado About Noting.” Indeed, many of the players participate in the actions of observing, listening, and writing, or noting. In order for a plot hinged on instances of deceit to work, the characters must note one another constantly. When the women manipulate Beatrice into believing that Benedick adores her, they conceal themselves in the orchard so that Beatrice can better note their conversation. Since they know that Beatrice loves to eavesdrop, they are sure that their plot will succeed: “look where Beatrice like a lapwing runs / Close by the ground to hear our conference,” notes Hero (III.i.24–25). Each line the women speak is a carefully placed note for Beatrice to take up and ponder; the same is true of the scheme to convince Benedick of Beatrice’s passion.
Don John’s plot to undo Claudio also hinges on noting: in order for Claudio to believe that Hero is unchaste and unfaithful, he must be brought to her window to witness, or note, Margaret (whom he takes to be Hero) bidding farewell to Borachio in the semidarkness. Dogberry, Verges, and the rest of the comical night watch discover and arrest Don John because, although ill-equipped to express themselves linguistically, they overhear talk of the Margaret--Borachio staging. Despite their verbal deficiencies, they manage to capture Don John and bring him to Leonato, after having had the sexton (a church official) “note” the occurrences of the evening in writing. In the end, noting, in the sense of writing, unites Beatrice and Benedick for good: Hero and Claudio reveal love sonnets written by Beatrice and Benedick, textual evidence that notes and proves their love for one another.
From the witty yet plaintive song that Balthasar sings about the deceitfulness of men to the masked ball and the music and dancing at the end of the play, the characters of Much Ado About Nothing spend much of their time engaging in elaborate spectacles and entertainments. The play’s title encapsulates the sentiment of effervescent and light court entertainment: the two hours’ traffic onstage will be entertaining, comic, and absorbing. The characters who merrily spar and fall in love in the beginning will, of course, end up together in the conclusion. Beatrice compares courtship and marriage to delightful court dances: “wooing, wedding and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinquepace” (II.i.60–61). By including a masquerade as court entertainment in the middle, as well as two songs and a dance at the end, the play presents itself as sheer entertainment, conscious of its own theatricality.
The idea of counterfeiting, in the sense of presenting a false face to the world, appears frequently throughout the play. A particularly rich and complex example of counterfeiting occurs as Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro pretend that Beatrice is head over heels in love with Benedick so that the eavesdropping Benedick will overhear it and believe it. Luring Benedick into this trap, Leonato ironically dismisses the idea that perhaps Beatrice counterfeits her desire for Benedick, as he and the others counterfeit this love themselves: “O God! Counterfeit? There was never counterfeit of passion came so near the life of passion as she discovers it” (II.iii.98–99).